Discerning Fear

Most of my work is centered around helping clients become conscious of fearful internal narratives that prevent them from fully engaging in life. Fears like, I’m not good enough to take on this new job. I’m afraid if I end my marriage I’ll never find love again. If I take time to take care of myself, everything will fall apart. Most of the time, these fears take us further away from our truth and can be ungrounding. I support clients in moving beyond them and creating more self-empowering perspectives.

Recently though, I encountered a situation that reminded me that not all fear is ungrounded and it’s important to know how to discern between different kinds of fear. There is the kind of fear that causes you to disconnect from yourself. It is created by the mind and can cause you to loop in limiting beliefs and patterns. Then, there is a kind of fear that actually guides you to listen more closely to yourself. This fear is more of a physical intuition, your body’s way of inviting you to connect more deeply with your own needs and boundaries. It is this latter kind of fear that I want to explore this month.

The situation that sparked my reflection was a private Equus Coaching experience with someone whom I’ll call Isaac. Isaac was a good looking and successful businessman in his mid-forties. He came across as a really charming guy. I began our session by asking Isaac to share more about why he wanted to try Equus Coaching and what in his life he might want support with. As Isaac began to share, I listened intently but found myself starting to feel a bit uncomfortable. He told me about his significant accomplishments, his thriving business, his bustling travel schedule, and the many good works he had been involved in. He said he wanted to use our time together to help him gain clarity around how to have a better romantic relationship with his partner.

While to my brain, all of this sounded fine, something about the feeling of what he was saying was off. My internal dialogue started to run: “Is it me or is Isaac not being authentic? Why do I feel uncomfortable around him?” I noticed that I felt a heavy knot in my chest. “Well, if he’s not being fully authentic, it’s most likely coming from a place of his past trauma. I can certainly empathize with that. Maybe he is just reflecting a shadow side of my own character that I haven’t resolved. He seems nice enough, maybe he is totally fine and I’m just not being trusting or open for some reason.”

While each of these are valid viewpoints, I noticed that I was looping in an internal dialogue of justifications, attempting to find the cause of my feelings and explain them away, rather than just honoring them and allowing myself to feel them. Regardless of why I was feeling on edge, my body was clearly telling me that something about Isaac’s behavior just wasn’t right. I took a deep breath.

While this may not sound like fear exactly, I was resisting my feelings precisely because I was afraid of what they meant. If I was uncomfortable with Isaac what did that say about me as a coach? I truly believe in honoring each person’s process and I strive to always be compassionate and open-minded. Maybe it meant that I wasn’t opening myself to fully connect with Isaac, that I wasn’t giving him the benefit of the doubt, or that I was projecting my own fears onto him.

I was very grateful that we were going to play with horses for the rest of the afternoon, since horses have a way of guiding me back to my internal compass. They offer clear signposts for how to move beyond the endless stories of the mind and get grounded in a deeper truth.

I led Isaac into the round pen with a horse named Bailey. Bailey was a grulla-colored mare with a gray dun coat and a black dorsal stripe that ran down her back. Isaac walked into the pen and waited for Bailey to walk up to him. Bailey looked him over from afar but kept herself engaged in other activities like wandering around and smelling the periphery of the pen.

Isaac quickly declared that Bailey was being a difficult horse. “Look at her! She is just trying to ignore me. I probably got stuck with the most difficult horse in the stables. Koelle, do you see this?” He continued, “I think maybe Bailey’s had bad training and now she’s a bit of a nut case. Hello, you idiot horse, I’m over here standing right in the middle of the pen waiting to connect with you!”

I was stunned to see a whole other side emerge from the charming man I had just spoken to in the barn. Isaac was saying these things in a playful tone, but it didn’t disguise the intense frustration and aggression that was bubbling out of him. 

Bailey looked at Isaac but kept her distance. Clearly, she didn’t feel comfortable or interested in connecting. “Hmm, maybe my discomfort wasn’t so far off the mark after all,” I thought. Watching Bailey reminded me why I love these animals so dearly. She didn’t question why she felt what she felt, she simply honored the truth of her own experience and for the time being, her intuition was telling her to stay away.  

I was reminded of one of my favorite books, The Gift of Fear by Gavin Debecker. In it, Gavin shares a story about a woman in an office building who is standing alone and about to get into an elevator. When the door opens, there is a man standing inside. At first glance she feels very uncomfortable but she decides it’s socially impolite to not get in the elevator. So she steps into an enclosed metal box that she cannot escape with someone whose motives turn out to be dangerous. No other animal on the planet would do this and disregard the warning signals of its own body. Gavin’s story guides readers to reconnect with their own animal instincts and emotional feeling states that communicate a healthy fear.

Bailey too was showing me that it was okay to honor my instincts that something felt uncomfortable about Isaac’s way of interacting. As I allowed myself to feel my discomfort, I became curious. I had been so quick to try to explain why I was feeling what I was feeling that I hadn’t thought to just be authentic with Isaac and tell him about it, like Bailey was doing with her body language. I decided to take Bailey’s lead and let Isaac know how his expressions came across. Similar to Bailey, I was finding it challenging to connect with him.

Isaac looked surprised. “Well, maybe it’s because I’m just a bit nervous and I can’t settle myself. I thought I would be so much better at this.”

It seemed that my being more authentic with Isaac opened up a pathway for him to do the same with me. “Isaac, can you allow yourself to settle into this moment and forget about trying to win over Bailey? Can you connect with what’s actually going on for you right now and what you might be afraid of?

“I just wanted both of you to think I’m really good at this so you’d like me. I guess I’m afraid of looking stupid or looking like a failure.”

I tried to explain the dynamic I saw playing out. “When you’re scared and feeling more insecure, your energy can come across as being pretty nervous and disjointed even when you’re doing your best to put on a good face. Then, because you feel vulnerable you become frustrated and seek to protect yourself through aggression to compensate. Does that resonate?”

He sighed. “I think that plays out in my romantic relationship too. I get nervous about being vulnerable and then I tend to start behaving like a jackass to my partner, forgive my language.”

“I see. Well, Bailey is not fooled. She won’t judge you or hold a grudge, but she is able to discern how the interaction feels to her from moment to moment. This might sound crazy but I want to invite you to walk through the arena and just start saying aloud all the things that you are afraid of that you don’t want others to know. Although that level of vulnerability can feel nerve-wracking, when we are honest with ourselves it creates space for genuine connection to form.”

Isaac looked at me with big eyes. “I don’t know if I can do that in front of you.”  

“Okay, fair enough. How about this, I’ll take my hearing aids out and believe me I can’t even hear the sound of my own voice without them. We can just watch how Bailey responds when you start to openly acknowledge what you’re feeling.”

I pulled out my aids and Isaac walked about clearly talking to himself. While I didn’t have a clue what he was saying, I tracked his body language closely. His shoulders softened, his face shifted towards sadness, his arms and hands moved more freely. While watching him, I noticed my own breathing begin to relax. I was no longer feeling as edgy or tense. Bailey had begun watching Isaac with interest too and she slowly began to trail him. She was keeping her distance still, but she was clearly feeling more interested in connecting.

Bailey reminded me that I could trust my animal instincts to guide me. By simply owning my healthy fear and not rushing to sort out why I was feeling tense, I was able to connect with myself and that gave me an opportunity to authentically relate to Isaac. When I was able to release my justifications and the narrow framework my mind wanted to place him in, I was free to experience him moment to moment, just like Bailey. It was a powerful lesson.

So friends, I want to ask, what fears of yours take you closer to connecting with your own truth and which ones take you further away? Can you honor what you’re feeling without worrying about why you might be feeling it? Have you learned to discern between different kinds of fear—that which your mind creates and that which your body uses to communicate about the environment around you?

In order to become skilled at listening to our own discernment, it is important to honor our instinctual animal body and allow ourselves to experience our emotions. While the whys might be interesting and fruitful to explore, when we rush to sort something or someone out, it can also function as a way to skip over our own needs. It takes incredible courage to acknowledge and act on what you’re feeling, but when you connect with yourself in such an authentic way, you invite the world to meet you there.